8 Tips to Avoid Biased Workplace Investigations | performHR

Managing workplace investigation issues relies on your processes are founded on procedural fairness. It’s this fairness that will provide your organisation with the right tools to identify robust and credible findings.

Think of a workplace investigation as an expedition. Just as you wouldn’t travel great distances in a car with faulty brakes or a sputtering engine, you can’t use questionable or flimsy procedures when driving for a reliable outcome in a workplace investigation.

To help you limit workplace investigation mistakes, we’ve summarised 8 helpful tips on how to avoid unfair workplace investigation practices.

Develop consistent and transparent processes for workplace investigations

While you should prioritise responding to allegations in a manner, you can’t afford to cut corners or implement strict time restrictions for respondents.

By following a standard timeline that addresses key stages in the investigation process such as the collection of information and conducting interviews, you can ensure a streamlined approach to workplace investigations. With a consistent framework in place, everyone involved can understand what’s expected from them during each phase of the investigation.

Your framework should allow your organisation to establish investigation objectives early on in the process that align with the scope of the investigative procedures.

Protect employee privacy confidential information

It’s not uncommon for employees to show hesitation in their involvement in a workplace investigation on the basis of privacy concerns.

No matter the context, all parties involved must have the right to confidentiality in workplace investigations. This means private details on the alleged incident or other sensitive topics cannot be shared amongst any more people than necessary.

Those involved in the workplace investigation procedures should show extreme caution when discussing the incident with those unfamiliar with the finer details. While the respondent has the right to know what the claim brought against them entails, other parties – including interviewed witnesses – should be provided with the minimum amount of details possible. Spreading private information amongst involved parties or colleagues can implicitly taint witness opinions and their recollection of events.

Collect information from all involved parties

Detailed interviews play a fundamental role in mitigating the chance of an unfair workplace investigation. But the success of interviews in a workplace investigation depends on numerous factors including:

  • Knowing who to interview
  • Ensuring that interviewed parties feel safe before, during and after their testimony by informing them that their responses will be confidential
  • Incorporate a mix of open and close ended questions.
  • Determine the right order of interviews. Typically, the complainant will be interviewed first, then the witnesses before finally the respondent.
  • Record all relevant information disclosed in the interviews
  • Schedule follow up interviews if necessary

There should be a list of investigation questions that can prompt thorough answers in respondents. Interviewers shouldn’t be inventing their own questions during the interview.

It can also be a good idea to have more than one interviewer present to ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible and assist in the documentation. The collection and storage of interview notes, photo evidence, video evidence or any other documentation will be crucial to mitigating the likelihood of workplace investigation mistakes.

Avoid biased or charged language

Throughout the entire workplace investigation process, remain mindful of the language or gestures you employ when discussing the incident or parties involved. If a party suspects that you are biassed throughout the process, this may influence their provision of the truth or other helpful details that will assist in securing a fair outcome.

When conducting interviews, don’t ‘lead’ the interviewee with questions that assume something is true. Rather than asking an interviewee ‘did you see Bob steal from Tom’s desk last Wednesday?’ you should instead ask them ‘did you notice anything out of the ordinary on Wednesday?’

Additionally, be conscious of your body language when conducting interviews or discussing the allegations. For example, don’t smile or nod when listening to interviewees respond to your question as this may implicitly give them the notion that you approve of their response. By remaining neutral and objective, you are providing interviewees with a non judgemental environment where they can provide honest answers.

Use tools that minimise the risk of biased workplace investigations issues

Developing a consistent process that you can apply to all allegations that come through your office door will form the foundations for minimising the risk of biased workplace investigations.

Depending on the incident you are investigating, you may need to consult with experts in a specific field such as IT, finance or specific social matters.

Furthermore, technology can work to counter biased workplace investigations. Software that offers a user-friendly interface for employees to contact HR can play a key role in mitigating the likelihood of workplace investigation mistakes. There is also a range of online platforms available for HR departments that are designed to simplify and automate the workplace investigation process by implementing standardised methodology.

Treat misconduct with nuance

Not all allegations demand a formal workplace investigation. Similarly, not all misconduct is equal.

However, all allegations should be objectively and reasonably addressed, whether it is through conflict mediation or a formal workplace investigation.

Before deciding how to approach an allegation, take a concerted effort to minimise the disruption of work amongst staff and that all parties involved experience procedural fairness. Knowing how to manage employee relations effectively and fairly is integral to the investigation process.

If you are managing a workplace investigation, you can follow certain steps to prioritise nuance in your processes:

  • When communicating with the respondent, it’s important to not raise past allegations if they are unrelated.
  • Ensuring that witnesses are not involved in administrative processes within the investigation
  • Provide all parties with sufficient notice of interviews or other relevant proceedings

Document the investigation at every stage

The documentation you accumulate throughout the investigation process will act as the major informant to your organisation’s ultimate judgement. This makes it a crucial aspect of the workplace investigation process that must be properly prepared, organised, analysed and managed.

Several important investigation documents an organisation will need to collect are:

  • Risk assessments
  • Witness statements
  • Interim reports
  • Letters addressed to the complainant and witnesses
  • Letters of allegation directed towards the respondent

All documentation collected during an investigation must be kept confidential and stored in a secure place.

Identify your biases

Both conscious and unconscious biases can damage the integrity of a workplace investigation.

Addressing organisational bias is an essential part of preventing a flawed workplace investigation. Organisational bias describes instances where an organisation has effectively made a decision to support either the respondent or the complainant prior to the commencement of the investigation.

Even if unintended, unconscious organisational bias can sway the final decision of a workplace investigation.

To limit the influence of organisational bias, it’s best practice for investigators to avoid hearing extraneous information about the organisation’s opinions or the parties themselves. Of course, this is more difficult in practice than in theory, but there are certain steps that can be taken to counter the influence of organisational bias in your investigatory proceedings:

  • Try not to engage in irrelevant or possibly prejudicial conversations with the involved parties.
  • Throughout the investigation, continuously ask yourself whether you would arrive at the same decision when analysing specific pieces of evidence that you would have had you not been privy to certain external facts or opinions.
  • If you suspect the organisation will object to your findings, re-examine your documentation for any shortfalls to guarantee that your findings engage with any potential areas of concern

Get your workplace investigations right with performHR

Organising a workplace investigation that’s both seamless and unbiased can be a complex task. performHR conducts thorough, impartial workplace investigations that provide organisations with a comprehensive investigation report and practical guidance on the next steps on how to effectively address operational, cultural or human resources issues.

If you are seeking advice on how to manage a current workplace investigation, get in touch with performHR to speak with one of our team members about our best practice workplace investigations.

“Managing workplace investigation issues relies on ensuring your processes are founded on procedural fairness.”

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